How Not to Promote a Healthy Work-life Balance

10 June 2016 -


It may have been well-intentioned, but Credit Suisse’s bizarre “have Friday nights off” perk has focused attention on the work-life woes in many industries

Jermaine Haughton

Attempting to reduce the workaholic image of banking, Credit Suisse has introduced an initiative giving employees greater time away from the office, but inadvertently the move has put the spotlight on the intense pressure and workload that bankers work under.

Dubbed “Protecting Friday Night,” the Swiss investment bank Credit Suisse has told its staff to leave work by 7pm on a Friday and not return until at least Saturday lunchtime, unless there is an urgent client request.

The move is part of a wider drive by the Swiss company to soften its workaholic image and improve its staff’s work-life balance.

As an investment banker’s workload tends to be reflective of the activity of their clients, the new scheme will now allow employees to make firm plans with family and friends and switch off from the office.

Introduced on May 23 and applying solely to investment bankers working in the Europe, Middle East and Asia investment banking and capital markets division, critics argue that the initiative has come too late, as the industry has already become tainted with a reputation for driving junior bankers to burnout and health issues, as demonstrated by a number of horror stories including the death of a banking intern.

For Credit Suisse, the increased focus on work-life balance comes at a time when the firm is experiencing poor performance, is facing major restructuring to slash costs and is keen to retain and attract the best talent.

In May this year, the Swiss firm recorded quarterly losses totalling £344million, its worst first-quarter performance since the height of the financial crisis. More widely, across the banking sector, rivals such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs have also implemented their own work-life schemes partly to stem the flow of talented employees and graduates opting for tech startups in Silicon Valley and Silicon Roundabout rather than the City or Wall Street.

For example, three mid-level bankers in Goldman Sachs Group Inc's technology investment banking group reportedly left to take positions at ride service company Uber Technologies.

In the halls of the most successful technology companies, like many law firms, financial institutions and indeed hospitals, a fanatical work pace is often prized and even mythologized: The all-night hackathons that helped build up Facebook; Steve Jobs pushing Apple employees to do the impossible and sometimes calling them back mid-vacation to get it done; Google building laundry services and gyms to keep employees on campus longer.

Of course bankers are not alone in facing long-hours and highly demanding work. A survey by the Creative Center for Leadership found that professionals, managers, and executives who carry smartphones typically interact with work or perform work-related tasks for 13.5 hours each work day and a total of 72 hours per week, including any time spent on weekends.

Overworking can severely damage an individual’s well-being - mentally, emotionally and physically. Workaholism can cause sleep deprivation, which is crucial to brain development and cognitive function, eye strain, poor digestion, stomach pains, migraines, a weakened immune system, stress and depression. Also, workaholics tend to experience increases in the amount of adrenalin that is being pumped into their body.

 Dr Archibald Hart, author of The Hidden Link Between Adrenalin and Stress, has explained that elevated adrenalin over a period of time can have severe ill effects on the heart, with “an increase in the production of blood cholesterol; a narrowing of the capillaries and other blood vessels that can shut down the blood supply to the heart muscle; and an increase in the blood’s tendency to clot.”

Additionally, workaholics can struggle to maintain personal relationships. In fact, 55% of marriages with workaholic spouses ended in divorce compared to the 16% of marriages without a workaholic spouse, according to the Charlotte Business Journal. An individual’s inability to spend sufficient time with their family and friends doesn’t just cause them to miss out on key emotional and personal events such as birthdays and weddings, but also lowers personal morale and confidence.

Here are three examples of work-life balance that missed the mark at major companies:

1. Yahoo Parental Leave By Leader’s Example

Joining a throng of tech firms embracing work-life balance initiatives for their employees, Yahoo extended its own official parental leave policy allowing new mothers to take up to 16 weeks paid time off and new fathers to take up to eight weeks paid time off.

This was positive news for both female and male employees who want to start a family but also develop their careers, especially those who have concerns about the effect on their career prospects. However, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took only two weeks maternity leave after the birth of her son and announced that she'd take "limited time away" from the office after the early December 2015 birth of her twin daughters.

This sent out a mixed message to employees about what is allowed and what is expected. Namely, how can a junior employee feel confident and comfortable in taking the full 12 weeks they’re entitled to, when the most powerful person in the company is only taking a fortnight off post-child birth?

2. Amazon Warehouse Friction

Despite Amazon offering its employees a number of perks and benefits to improve their work and personal life such as an £8,000 grant towards furthering their education, a “leave share" program that allows employees to share their parental leave benefits with a spouse or partner, and even paying unsatisfied staff up to £3,500 to leave, the e-retailer’s work-life policies have come under scrutiny.

In fact, the relationship between Amazon and its warehouse employees has been fractious for years. In one report by the New York Times, new recruits are alleged to work up to 80 hours per week, experience insensitivity from demanding managers and are frustrated by an overly stringent staff evaluation system. It is understandable, therefore, why a study of 993 companies across all sectors found that Amazon ranked at a lowly 190th for the quality of its work-life balance for staff.

3. PepsiCo's US workplace wellness program fails to pay off

In the US, healthcare bills can cost thousands depending on the treatment and can lead to large debts. Therefore big companies such as soft drinks giant PepsiCo operate workplace wellness programmes to encourage employees to adopt healthier lifestyles - both in and out of the office. They aim, for instance, to help employees quit smoking, maintain a healthy weight and have regular screenings for elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, cancer and other conditions, all of which are supposed to reduce healthcare spending, cut absenteeism and boost productivity.

However, the study, which is published in the journal Health Affairs, showed faults in PepsiCo’s programme. PepsiCo employees who participated in these lifestyle programs reported a small reduction in absenteeism, but there was no significant effect on healthcare costs.

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